By Courtney Trenwith
Would you have paid as much attention to the story of three Al Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt if one of their lawyer’s had not been married to a Hollywood actor?
It could have been dubbed the ‘Amal Clooney Circus’. The buzz around Saturday’s re-sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt should have been on two serious issues only: the right of journalists to report freely and the Egyptian justice system.
Yet, much of the attention was focused on one lawyer – Amal Clooney, who just happens to be married to Hollywood actor George Clooney and has become the fashion magazine’s latest style icon.
The cameras were permanently centred on the Lebanese human rights lawyer, swarmed her outside the Cairo courthouse and were transfixed on her as she sat at the bar table.
Countless news outlets, including those considered to be reputable, published photos or videos of Clooney along with their article – not of the journalists (Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste) whose fate was revealed.
While The Guardian wrote a fair account of the news, its online version was topped with a video which focused on Clooney.
A similar version of the video headed the Sydney Morning Herald’s coverage, despite one of the three journalists, Peter Greste, living in the city after being deported in February and under sentencing by absentia. It also took advantage of Clooney’s profile with a secondary story and video solely on her comments.
The Daily Telegraph and several other outlets, including Saudi Gazette and the Huffington Post chose an image of a male speaking to Clooney as the single photo published along with their report. Again, none of them focused on the three men at the centre of the trial.
The New York Times, however, was one of the rare outlets to cover the news without focusing on Clooney. She was not mentioned until nearly the end of the article, which centred on what the three-year sentences signalled about President El Sisi’s rule, and her actor husband was never referred to. The article was accompanied by a photo of jailed journalist Baher Mohamed in the courtroom during the proceedings.
Underscoring the attention paid to Clooney, prior to her presence in the trial, most news outlets had used footage of the three men sitting in the dock during their first trial. How things changed when a celebrity became involved.
News wire Associated Press even described Clooney as ‘actor’s wife’ rather than her job title of ‘human rights lawyer’ in one of its Tweets, attracting deserved criticism.
Twitter user named Soraya Bahgat summed up the situation on Twitter: “Shame to focus on #AmalClooney and ignore the men whose freedom is at stake. This isn’t about her today #ajretrial”
The user was supported by numerous others who despised the fact Clooney was the centre of attention in a case that not only impacted the lives of the three defendants and their families but spoke volumes of the Egyptian justice system and global journalistic freedom and safety.
Fauziah Ibrahim wrote on Twitter: “Dear Journos, the story is NOT #AmalClooney. Perspective please. #FreeAJStaff”.
Australian barrister and refugee advocate Jessie Taylor also deplored the “media circus”.
“The media circus around #AmalClooney is ridiculous. She is a LAWYER DOING HER JOB. Treating her like a pop starlet is demeaning. #ajretrial”, she wrote on Twitter.
While it could be argued that Clooney’s involvement in the trial has garnered more attention than it may otherwise have received – Hollywood Reporter and other celebrity magazines would unlikely have covered the story if not for Clooney – it does not seem to have made any difference to the outcome. The journalists, who were convicted of aiding a terrorist organisation, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, were still sentenced to three years in jail despite some expectations they would be acquitted or given time served. Although the sentences are shorter than the original 7-10 years handed down in the first trial.
It also raises that perennial question about society’s priorities. Sadly, thousands of people probably would not have read the story if it were not for Clooney’s stunning appearance. So can we really blame media for their coverage? If readers are only willing to follow such a story due to the celebrity presence, then the above media outlets were doing their job, responding to what readers want in an ever cut-throat industry that is increasingly reliant on website hits to remain in business.
Many may not be aware that Clooney has represented multiple high profile cases prior to her marriage, including Wikileaks' Julian Assange and the king of Bahrain. While Assange’s case received immense attention at the time, Clooney – then Amal Alamuddin - was not a feature.
Since marrying into Hollywood, however, it is likely every case she puts her face to will become news.
I've followed this story from the beginning and never even clocked Amal Clooney (who is famous for being a human rights lawyer, NOT the wife of a middle-aged actor) as being of interest and she was certainly not the focus for any of the coverage I read of it, nor any discussions I had about it.
The biggest concerns for me (and every other person in the Middle East with whom I discussed this) was the lack of freedom of press in Egypt, Sisi's denial of basic human rights, the dearth of anything remotely justice about Egypt's justice system, and the fact that the white guy was the only one released.
Looks like the UK papers are doing their usual of pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Can't blame the publishing companies, media itself has become a circus nowadays.
If there is a 5 year old kid stuck in a sewage hole, and if there is a female celebrity walking out of a restaurant with tears in her eyes, the female celebrity will be the "BREAKING NEWS: Ms. X walks out of a restaurant - weeping!", what about the kid in the hole? You can read about it in the channel's ticker feed